Discovering the magic of Edinburgh

The scenic river known as the Water of Leith runs through the city and its collection of stone buildings.(Tom Shroder/For The Washington Post)

The doors of the Airlink 100 bus from Edinburgh airport hissed open at what we thought was the stop nearest to our hotel. The desk clerk I’d emailed said the stop was directly in front of the hotel, which was supposed to be close to the city center. As the bus pulled away, we did not appear to be either opposite the hotel or near the center of anything, except a row of low-rise brown stone structures and a four-lane road.

Wrong stop.

We set off walking in the direction of the right stop, we hoped, dragging carry-on bags behind us as buses and cars whizzed past the narrow sidewalk. Just as I was settling in to the familiar hopeless mind-set of Day 1 in a new foreign city, jet-lagged, sleep-deprived and, more or less, lost, I glanced off to the right. There below us, a wide, swiftly moving stream of dark water flowed away beneath the graceful arch of a stone bridge, draped with vines, sheltered by ancient shade trees and bordered with quaint, stucco cottages with peaked roofs like something out of the Brothers Grimm. The cottage closest to the road had a red sandstone plaque built into the wall above the lone window and beneath the chimney. In gothic type, it read, “In accordance with the will of George Pape of Coltbridge House these cottages were built for the use of three poor widows in all time coming. A.D. 1894.”

It was the first of what I came to think of as our Edinburgh Harry Potter moments — when the ordinary Muggle reality suddenly parted to reveal something magical. As it turned out, this wasn’t entirely fanciful thinking on my part. I only discovered later that J.K. Rowling herself said, in a 2008 speech accepting the Edinburgh Award, “Edinburgh is very much home for me and is the place where Harry evolved over seven books and many, many hours of writing in its cafes.”

The city’s remarkably consistent buildings of mottled brown stone blocks, the most spectacular of them with sharply peaked roofs and ostentatious turrets, are clear inspiration for the architecture of the Hogwarts School of Wizardry. The tombstones in the fabulously gloomy Greyfriars Kirkyard in the oldest part of the city bear the names of some key Potter characters — McGonagall, Moodie and, most notably, Thomas Riddle, the birth name of Harry’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort. Tourists flock to the cafes where the then-impoverished author wrote out her stories in longhand: the Elephant House, Nicholson’s (now called Spoon), the baroquely gorgeous Balmoral Hotel.

But more than these, it was the city itself, its mood of hard-edge coziness and sudden revelations around unexpected corners, that cemented the more literal Potter connections.

When we got to the hotel, an ordinary-looking, two-story stone house on the outside (which, true to form, would open as if by magic to reveal one of the most luxurious hotel rooms we’d ever stayed in) — 12-foot ceilings, a lushly furnished sitting area looking out a big bay window, a roomy bathroom containing a claw-foot tub and a large-screen TV embedded in an oversized mirror — it was not yet check-in time. We had a quick breakfast in the dining room, then, although we’d been up for 24 hours at that point, decided to kill the four hours until our room was ready by walking into the town center.

One of the typical residential-and-retail streetscapes in the Scottish capital, with buildings of mottled stone blocks. (Tom Shroder/For The Washington Post)

Edinburgh has a cheap (about a buck-fifty a ride in town) and efficient bus system with frequent service to everywhere a visitor might want to visit. The drivers and fellow passengers alike are extremely friendly and more than willing to explain the system and point you to the correct stop, as well as discuss their recent doctor’s appointments, the town council’s foolishness and, of course, the weather.

A word about the weather: I have been in countless places where locals humblebragged about the changeability of their climate: “If you don’t like it, wait 15 minutes.” But Scotland is the first place I’ve been where that is literally true — a sky the color of unlaundered sweat shorts spitting a misty drizzle one moment, and a glorious northern sun cutting through great galleons of clouds the next. It can be a bit challenging as to what to wear, but the upside is a ridiculous number of rainbows.

Anyway, we didn’t yet know the bus system, and we like to walk. So we did, past an unlikely streetscape including a rugby stadium, fast-food restaurants and beauty shops, then blocks of identical and repeating two-story stone townhouses, all with bay windows, balustraded rooftop terraces and phalanxes of chimneys right out of “Mary Poppins.” As we neared the center, we came to a huge plot of land surrounded by a black, wrought-iron fence. In the middle of the property loomed Downton Abbey. The Tudor building looked almost exactly like that famous fictional landmark, only bigger and grander. Turns out it was once a hospital, then a school for the deaf, and is now being transformed into high-end apartments. (What else?) Queen Victoria was so impressed, contemporary accounts reported, that she jokingly offered to trade the structure for her Holyrood Palace.

But that was all a preamble. Edinburgh’s center really commences at Princes Street, a high road that runs parallel to the ridge of Castle Rock, a 430-foot high remnant of an extinct volcano with a name straight out of “Game of Thrones.” Castle Rock got its name because it has uplifted some kind of castle since the 1100s. The current castle, the oldest parts of which are from the 16th century, looms atmospherically above the city and can be seen from one end of Princes Street to the other. Between road and rock stretches a lovely green garden, 37 acres’ worth, which blossoms madly along a steep declivity that had once been Nor Loch — really more of a stinking moat than an actual lake — before it was drained in the middle of the 18th century. Spanned by a series of bridges and studded with museums and monuments, the old city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a delightful place to wander, if you don’t mind mingling with thick crowds of tourists and locals taking advantage of street markets, pubs, restaurants and shops of every conceivable variety. Seated in the valley is Waverly Station, where you can depart on clean, comfortable trains to appealing tourist destinations such as Glasgow, St. Andrews, Stirling, the Highlands and the Borders, as well as a 4½ -hour fast train to London.

It was the work of several days to visit all the obvious attractions of the city center — including a timed entry tour of the castle, which is really more of a walled city unto itself with fabulous views of the rest of Edinburgh from its outer ramparts. We gradually understood that some of the most interesting places — and most of the best restaurants — were outside the heavily touristed areas. Not being seriously into the most notorious Scottish dish, haggis (which involves several sheep organs encased in a stomach) we found a wide range of alternative eats — cafes with rich coffee and delectable baked goods, excellent ethnic places and others with sophisticated nouveau cuisine popping up in out-of-the-way spots. Even the cafeteria in the National Gallery of Modern Art had a buffet loaded with interesting and delicious items.

We settled into a routine of slowly waking up in the luxurious hotel room, walking halfway into the center to the Coates Cafe — a high-ceilinged big-windowed place with sofas and easy chairs to sink into as we waited for our coffee and scones, then wandering until something interesting caught our eye. Edinburgh is a great city for wandering and discovery. One morning we noticed a sign by the storybook riverside cottages we’d noticed on our first day pointing toward something labeled Water of Leith. It turned out to be a walking path running 12 miles along a small, scenic river through the city to the port of Leith, where among other things the Royal Yacht Britannia was moored and open for tours. To us, the real attraction was the path itself, dipping down from the busy surface streets into a tree-shaded, water-soothed landscape that might have been in the deep countryside, complete with weeping willows and small waterfalls, and occasionally emerging into architecturally stunning neighborhoods dominated by buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Just a cannonball’s throw away, the city stretches toward the Firth of Forth, a blue streak in the distance. (Tom Shroder/For The Washington Post)

A short distance along, another path splits off up a forested hillside leading to the city’s modern art museum. A mile or so beyond that yet another path leads to the 70-acre Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, a spectacular array of specimen trees and plantings from around the world (with its own cafe and restaurant). Some detour signs had been put up (by the fools on the town council, we were inevitably informed) where the path had been partially eroded. The signage was blithely ignored by a steady stream of locals continuing along without concern or incident. At one point, the path climbs out of the river’s little valley up a steep cobbled street into the homey neighborhood of Stockbridge, directly into the middle of a street market peddling food delicacies impossible to ignore. (We tried.)

By the end of our trip, we were thoroughly charmed. I thought back to a moment as we were checking in 10 days earlier. I had anxiously asked the hotel clerk if he thought the rain would continue all week. He looked up and smiled charmingly. “People come to Scotland for our personality,” he said. “Not our weather.”

But the truth was, the weather wasn’t all that bad. All you had to do was wait 15 minutes.